Primary Education in Brazil

In 1994, a six-year-old Brazilian child from the bottom quintile of the income distribution was likely to complete only the first few grades of primary school, despite spending years returning to the schoolhouse, repeating grades in the one- or two-room structure without books, electricity, or water. The child’s mother likely never went to school herself, and the child’s teacher could boast only somewhat more educational achievement. In Brazil’s rural northeast, 60% of teachers had not completed secondary school; 30% had not finished primary school.[1]

To make matters even worse, there was no way for the Brazilian government to evaluate student achievement and teacher performance in school.

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution specifically lays out education as a “right of all, and a duty of the State and families, in cooperation with general society” (VII.3.i). It guarantees equal and universal access to quality education, even going so far as list provisions, such as night courses, that must be made to guarantee accessibility, and to stipulate specific percentages of the federal, state and municipal budgets that must be allocated to education (18% and 25%, respectively).

However, as can be seen from the description above, it was not until the mid to late 1990s, that the newly democratic Brazilian state attempted to make good on its promises. As can also be seen from the above description, the challenges facing Brazil’s education system were legion.

In what seems to be a typical maneuver for the Brazilian state, the response to the numerous educational challenges was an alphabet soup of acronyms, each designed to tackle one aspect of the Herculean task that was, and continues to be, required to improve Brazilian education.

First came the SAEB (Sistema de Avaliação da Educação Básica), a sample-based, state-by-state biennial measurement test of students’ abilities in math and Portuguese. Introduced by the Cardoso administration in 1995, the SAEB was supplemented in the Lula years by another student evaluation, Prova Brasil (“Test Brazil”) that tests all fourth and eighth grade students (in addition to the cutely named Provinha Brasil or “little test Brazil,” an voluntary reading test for 3rd graders). These test results are combined with other data (specifically, grade progression rates) to create the IDEB (Índice de Desenvolvimento de Educação Básica), which the World Bank described as “one of the world’s most impressive systems for measuring education results…superior to current practice in the United States and in many other OECD countries.” Finally, in 2000, Brazil joined the OECD’s Program for International Student Achievement, PISA, to further international comparison and standardization.

Next came, the FUNDEF (Fundo de Desenvolvimento do Ensino Fundamental), which in 1996 sought to streamline and regularize the funding promises laid out in the 1988 Constitution. Because such a significant portion of the funding and managing of the school systems was in state and municipal hands, there existed huge inequalities in spending-per-student both within and between states. FUNDEF set spending-per-student minimums that mandated redistribution within states (that is, between municipalities) and provided federal-level redistribution between states, for those unable to meet the expenditures with their own revenues. An important innovation in the history of Brazil’s education, FUNDEF tied these funds to student enrollment, through capitation, thereby incentivizing municipalities to boost enrollment (while the IDEB mentioned earlier disincentivized holding students back). Finally, FUNDEF mandated that at least 60% of the funds be spent on teacher salaries, which prior to the reform had dipped below the minimum wage in some parts of the country.

Again, the initiative of the Cardoso administration was strengthened under Lula, when FUNDEF, which contained a sunset clause of 8 years, was renewed as FUNDEB, and expanded to include pre-primary school, secondary school, and special spending requirements for indigenous and Afro-Brazilian (quilombo) communities.

Finally, any blog post on the state of primary education in Brazil would be remiss to not mention the famed conditional cash transfer program, Bolsa Família (“family allowance”). First implemented by the mayor of Brasilia in 1995 as Bolsa Escola (“school allowance”), the program was adopted nationally by Cardoso and once again expanded and reinforced by Lula, to the tune of 45 million people. Bolsa Familia currently covers nearly a quarter of Brazil’s population, providing a monthly stipend of between 13 and 15 USD per child, to female heads of households below the poverty line. The condition is that the children must receive a health check-up and vaccinations, and must maintain an attendance level of 85% at school. It is an audacious program, with broad and far-ranging goals of eradicating poverty, child labor, hunger and illiteracy as well as stimulating local economic growth and improving public health. As it is the world’s largest conditional cash transfer program, its effects on educational achievement are a matter of continuous debate and dissection. Though the exact extent of its impact on educational achievement may be debated, its effect has clearly been positive.

Through Bolsa Família and the educational reforms laid out above, Brazil has made significant progress in the realm of education since its return to democracy. However, with the BRICS euphoria of the past decade now fading, further reform may be necessary for Brazil to overcome such longstanding obstacles to sustainable economic development as functional illiteracy (estimated at half of all high schoolers). Until then, the Patria Educadora that President Dilma promised on the campaign trail will remain an aspect of “the country of the future,” but never the present.

Christopher Owens, MPP ’16


[1] Barbara Burns, David Evans and Javier Luque, Brazilian Education 1995-2010: Transformation (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012)]


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